Sunday, 22 May 2016

Living Confucianism – a daimyo's iaijutsu

The actor Amachi Shigeru receiving instruction in
Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Yamauchi-ha

Virtually any field of human endeavour and achievement is influenced by more than just the need for practicality. It is this aspect, the human and cultural dimension that, as much as anything else, has shaped and distinguished the different styles of classical martial arts. The wants and needs of societies as well as individuals leave their marks on each style, and these may be quite different how we imagine them.

It is axiomatic in the world of Japanese martial arts that ‘if the kokoro (mind) is not correct, the sword will not be correct’. While kokoro (and mind, for that matter) is a term that is open to many interpetations, let us take it , in this case, as being ‘attitude’ or ‘way of thinking’. This, of course, begs the question, What is the correct attitude?

The answer may not be as simple as it seems, and the dimensions that it touches may be the reason that, on and off, so much of the discourse on martial arts has been flavoured with large helpings of philosophy, mysticism and spirituality. While in some ryu-ha this tends towards the religious (especially in those schools which maintain a close connection with particular shrines and/or deities); in others, it is more philosphically or morally inclined. This connection seems to date from early in the development in swordsmanship, although given the prominence of religion in medieval societies, this is not surprising.

In modern budo, the aspect of moral/spiritual training has continued, with disciplines such as kendo and kyudo stating their aim as being a honing of the human spirit by using martially flavoured practice as a tool. (It must be admitted that this may not be readily apparent to the casual observer).

It is rare, however, to see these influences addressed explicitly and lucidly by advanced practitioners of a pre-modern style in any more than a cursory way, in English, at least, which is why it can be so interesting when they do appear.

One such work is ‘Muso-Jikiden Eishin Ryu. The Iai Forms and Oral Traditions of the Yamauchi Branch’ by Yamakoshi Masaki, Tsukimoto Kazutake and translated by Steven Trenson. Although I have no connection with this style, I found it shed some valuable light on the aims and functions of this ryu-ha, recognizing its place in a society that had moved on from the age of war but still found value in the old practices.

Muso-Jikiden Eishin Ryu – what’s it all about?
What is interesting about this ryu-ha is that it was an elite practice, used by members of the Yamauchi Family (the daimyo of Tosa, in Shikoku – also famous as the birthplace of Sakamoto Ryoma, who did not practice this style) and higher ranking members of the administration. It was deeply Neo-Confucian in nature, and represented this philosophy in its theory of practice. Interestingly, it was well aware of the need for the discipline to provide more than skill at arms, especially for members of  a class whose duties were largely bureaucratic rather than military. If anything, it appeared to look down on such a simplistic view of sworsmanship. Indeed, compared with the ‘way’ of governing, or of service to one’s lord, the ‘way’ of swordsmanship, and of any craft or skill, was generally regarded as being of lesser value. The ability to govern a domain or command an army were of far more importance than the ability to wield a sword. However, they were not entirely unconnected.

The bushi of the Edo period were the heads of society, and they took their role seriously. For them, the idea of a virtuous government and leading by example were important: learning necessarily included the cultivation of moral virtue. Iaijutsu embodied this attitude, and it also provided a pedagogic framework.

While for normal folk, moral virtue meant following rules – rules that supposedly embodied the Principle of the Universe (or the Dao), for the higher ranks there was more to it. The practice of iaijutsu ‘provided the attitude and method of how to cultivate, by themselves, the necessary virtues to fulfil their duties.’ Following the Neo-Confucian teaching of kakubutsu-chichi, which can be rather ponderously translated as the expansion of knowledge of the inherent principles of phenomena attaining to the principle of the universe. In other words, in order to understand this principle, you have to know as much as you can about, well, just about everything. In terms of iaijutsu, this meant not only questioning the principles inherent in the forms, but also reflection on the purposes of practice itself.

Beyond this, was the method of contemplation, which was, indeed, the primary method of cultivation in iaijutsu. Shuitsu-muteki, not wandering off, referred to an awareness involving all the senses and faculties rather than a single-minded attention, in the same way that you would notice who had come into a room while you were watching television. The purpose of this was to gradually calm the mind and allow one’s true, which is to say good, benevolent, nature to come to the fore.

Kashima Shinto Ryu iai

Certain practices, (such as tameshigiri) are not included in the school because they work against this process. By promoting a sense of satisfaction in one’s cutting performance, one is increasing the passions that surround your true nature, thus making it that much more difficult to allow it to surface. The nature of test cutting itself was also though to be deleterious to character building, and could lead to a cold, cruel character. Indeed, a danger was seen in the development of technical skills if they were not accompanied by a corresponding moral and intellectual growth.

Of course, the devil is in the details, but even from this cursory view, this gives us some insight into how the martial arts might have been viewed by their practitioners during the Edo period – perhaps in a very different way from how we imagine tham to have been.  The authors note that the aim of iaijutsu was to help a practitioner understand the meaning of his or her own life and not to retreat from responsibilities, thus embodying the dictum ‘First know, then act.’